Player problem solving is Northampton’s secret weapon this season

Phil Dowson, the Northamptons Saints director of rugby, looks on during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Northampton Saints and Saracens at the cinch Stadium at Franklin's Gardens on March 29, 2024 in Northampton, England.
Phil Dowson trusts his players to make good on-field decisions - Getty Images/David Rogers

It is early January and the clock has ticked past 20 minutes at Sandy Park where Northampton have just conceded their fourth try to Exeter Chiefs. Up in the windswept stands, director of rugby Phil Dowson is entertaining some dark thoughts about his half-time messaging.

But then Saints regrouped and two quickfire tries by Callum Braley and Ollie Sleightholme changed the complexion of the match. This was a turning point in more than one sense. Not only did Northampton go on to beat Exeter 42-36 but a young group of players had independently found a means of digging themselves out of a sizeable hole. They would show similar poise under pressure in their Champions Cup group stage victory away to Munster later that month.

When he was appointed director of rugby in 2018, Chris Boyd instigated a revolution in Northampton’s playing style. Saints soon became the darlings of the league for the flair and freedom with which they played. That style had its limits with no progress past either the play-off semi-finals nor the Champions Cup quarter-finals. “There’s probably been times before where we would just back our attack to pull teams apart and when that wasn’t working we weren’t very good at what’s the next thing?” George Furbank, the England full-back, said.

So following another semi-final defeat to Saracens last May, the senior players approached Dowson and head coach Sam Vesty in preseason and asked if they could take on more ownership of the group. Dowson, recognising their shortfalls, happily acceded to their request.  “It gets to a point where you want that squad to evolve. Sam, Radders (Lee Radford) and I are not on the pitch so therefore you want those guys to be the ones making decisions, pushing it and driving it,” Dowson said. “That’s what they came up with. Through necessity with Boydy, he came in and showed people how to play a certain style and spoon fed the players to a certain degree. Now we are saying ‘come on lads, what do you think is important? How do you want do it?’”

Northampton Saints head coach Sam Vesty ahead of the Investec Champions Cup quarter-final match at cinch Stadium at Franklin's Gardens, Northampton
Northampton head coach Sam Vesty - PA/Adam Davy

This is not to imply that Dowson and Vesty have suddenly taken a backseat, but they are consciously allowing the players to lead discussions and to find solutions before they are offered them. “If Sam, Radders or I have something important to say then we are going to jump in but more often than not we will leave them to fill the silence,” Dowson said. “I try very rarely to put too many messages on to the pitch because I don’t have the context of how they are feeling at that particular moment.”

There are plenty of other factors that have underpinned Northampton’s charge to the top of the Premiership and the Champions Cup semi-finals from Courtney Lawes’ availability to their increased muscle mass and the appointment of Radford as defence coach, but in the view of Furbank their improved decision-making has been fundamental.

“We wanted to be more player led as a group because on game day the coaches aren’t the pitch to solve problems for you,” Furbank said. “We felt like we were losing games in previous seasons because of that issue. Games like Exeter away for example, where we were pretty much down and out of that game. We just felt like we could solve the issues that were going on and put our game right without necessarily having an absolute rollicking at halftime. Even in the close games, Munster away, was another one where you don’t have coaches on the pitch telling where you to go and how to manage a game.”

Saints are going to need those smarts entering a brutal three-game stretch of Leicester at home, Harlequins at Twickenham followed by Leinster in a Champions Cup semi-final at Croke Park. Then again Northampton’s previous three games were back-to-back Champions Cup knockout games and Saracens at home. “If you start thinking about how many big games you have got coming up, it can become pretty overwhelming,” Furbank said. “It is carnage, but good carnage.”

Beating Leicester at home would virtually guarantee a semi-final spot with an added incentive of mortally wounding the Tigers’ own play-off aspirations. Furbank grew up a Saints supporter and was in the stands when Tom Wood scored his famous try against Leicester in the 2014 play-offs.

The passion is no less these days, but Furbank admits half the challenge is keeping their emotions in check. “The derby is massive,” Furbank said. “I was a Saints fan growing up so these are the games that always have added feeling and added excitement. I remember watching Woody’s try in the corner here and the atmosphere that creates and the intensity the derby brings is massive. There’s an extra edge, an extra buzz.

“We don’t want to get too hyped up because then we will not be in the best headspace to execute our game plan but there’s definitely a few lads who are very good at pressing the emotional buttons.”